1873: The Art of 19th-Century Hair Work

Have you ever been to a museum and noticed a curiosity known as hair work? Did you wonder what it was or where it came from? Most collecting repositories have a few examples of this unique 19th-century artistic expression.

What got me thinking about these types of objects was a record entry for a collection item dated 1873. It was described in our catalog as a floral picture made from locks of hair of the pupils of Sallie E. Johnson of Delaware. I soon found out that the Delaware Historical Society has many similar items in its collection.

Hair wreath attributed to the Spruance family of Delaware, DHS object collection
Hair wreath attributed to the Spruance family of Delaware, DHS object collection

Though hair work had been around for centuries in Europe, it did not become widely popular until the 19th century. This artistic movement involved the weaving of human hair to make pieces like jewelry, wreaths, or floral bouquets. Oddly enough, human hair was the perfect textile as it doesn’t decay over time like other materials. In fact, it can last for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years.

Besides their strange look, the pieces are fascinating because of their intimate and sentimental nature. They often represented tokens of friendship, uniquely designed for the individual to whom it was given. Hair work pieces could also be used to mourn the dead; a lock of hair was taken from the deceased loved one and placed into a piece of jewelry like a ring. Since women were the primary creators of these objects, the study of hair work yields some wonderful information about the lives of women in the 19th century, including their personal relationships.

If you’d like to read more about this history, check out these links:

http://thevictormourning.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/labor-of-love-the-art-of-hair-work-in-the-19th-century/http://www.victoriangothic.org/the-lost-art-of-sentimental-hairwork/

 

–Heather


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